When rebel forces took Tripoli from Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, Saleh Magdub walked into one of the capital’s deserted state television studios and claimed it as his own, launching one of Libya’s first domestic satellite channels.
Mr. Magdub, a Libyan-Swiss engineer, had rushed back home in the early days of the revolution in February. He has since become a major player in the behind-the-scenes scramble over who will control the media and its power to shape public opinion in the post-Gadhafi era.
“The media market is absolutely free,” he said from the modern office of his new Libya Al Hurra station in the centre of the capital. “Everyone has the right to present what he wants as long as you don’t break the rules.”
In fact, in the new Libya there are no rules. The country is running on ad-hoc decisions most often made by committees in individual towns and neighbourhoods. The Transitional National Council, the anti-Gadhafi forces’ provisional governing body, has not appointed interim ministers.
In the vacuum, new media outlets have blossomed. Local television and radio channels have sprung up in the larger cities of Benghazi and Misrata. Dozens of newspapers have appeared across the country.
But the biggest battle is for the media-related equipment, frequencies and property in the freshly liberated capital, which was the hub of the ousted dictator’s massive international and domestic propaganda machine.
Mr. Magdub is a case in point. He set up Libya Al Hurra in the studios of a channel that was controlled by Col. Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. The sets, computers and other equipment were purchased only three years ago and are housed in a modern downtown building.
The NTC is trying to stop people from grabbing what was considered state or public property. But since the Gadhafi clan made no distinction between what was theirs and what belonged to the state, the country’s new rulers do not have an easy time of it.
Mr. Magdub said he has the ruling council’s approval to stay where he is until the end of the year. But he also said he has no intention of seeing his station evicted.
“This place belongs to the Libyan people,” he said. “Actually, I’m helping the country by being here. I could run the station with 20 people but I’m keeping 150 on the payroll.”
The NTC finds itself in the situation of opening the door to a proliferation of new Libyan media, but without giving away public assets to private entrepreneurs.
Mahmoud Shamman, the transitional council’s media and information chief, said Libya Al Hurra has only a temporary lease.
A former journalist with the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera and chairman of a new Qatar-based Libyan channel called Libya Al Ahrar, he said the NTC aims to set up a new state-run broadcasting arm and a newspaper in the near future.
“We are not going to do a propaganda machine,” he said. “The only thing we insist they do is let people know what the NTC and the government are doing.”
So far, the anti-Gadhafi rebels now in charge of the country have made little use of the media to get their messages across. A committee of rebel activists from Benghazi has occupied what once was the state-run pan-Africa radio service. It offers mainly patriotic songs and call-in shows. Another NTC effort is a new FM radio station that broadcasts in English. “It wasn’t allowed before, so why not have an English language station?” said Mohamed Kish, one of the founders.
The old Libyan state television operation, damaged during the fighting in Tripoli, remains shuttered. A few expatriate Libyan businessmen are beaming their own satellite television channels into the country from borrowed or rented space in Qatar, Tunisia and Egypt. But most Libyans, when asked, say they are suspicious of the new Libyan media and still rely on a mix of international satellite stations for their news.
“Here in Libya the media is the “first estate,” the only institution really, because the country is disorganized,” said Mr. Magdub of Libya Al Hurra. “We just know that the revolution doesn’t end just with the end of Gadhafi.”
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Published